Monday, December 8, 2008

Through the Beijing Glass

Yes, with the godparents Vera and Paul Chow, us birds in front of the Olympic Nest.
I didn't suck
but didn't eat duck
had lamb from the west
and awed by Bird's Nest
The overnight train from Beijing to Shanghai is comfortable and cozy--was nestled in an upper bunk and slept to the hum of a north-bound train.  Next thing you know, we arrived to the dry air and a pristine chill. The taxi ride to the Beijing Foreign Studies University passed Tiananmen, passed a colorful temple, passed a crumbling city wall. The history was clear and present; the taxi-driver's warbled Beijing accent was not.
The Center for Chinese American Literature Research was started 5 years ago by Emeritus Professor Bing Wu, whose mother is a well-known poet who was a contemporary of Lu Xun's. It is now run by Dr. Liu, who is planning an anthology of Chinese American works.  I was invited by Prof. Wei Zhou, who found me on the Upstart Crow website, initially contacting me to ask for my Chinese name, since she was presenting a paper in Xian at a Chinese American literature conference.

The Center was kind enough to invite me to give a talk once they knew I was coming to Beijing. And so I tried to articulate thoughts of not just Asian American, but specifically Chinese American, to a Chinese audience. Quite a fruitful exercise.  In a seminar room just below the Research Center, I delivered the talk to 20 students, mostly undergrads with impeccable English (BFSU provides 80% of the diplomats, what with over 40 languages spoken). I am the first playwright invited by the Research Center to speak to the students.
It was brought to my attention by one of the students that the contradictions I describe for the Chinese American through Last of the Suns is resonant for the 80-and-after Generation (that's what the one-childers are called). There is now the conflict between freedom, in the form of you get anything you want from a set of parents and 2 sets of grandparents, and tradition, where academic expectations and societal darwinism put a damper on that freedom. How to fly?
Before the talk, there was a lively lunch with Prof. Wu, Dr. Liu, Prof. Zhou, and Prof. Zhang, a retired drama professor. Prof. Zhang was telling of how her granddaughter is not given any free time to play--her mother has legislated piano practice so intensely, that it has become a chore. She dare not say anything, and worries that the child only follows orders and doesn't have curiosities of her own.  Dr. Liu said she does not force her son to do anything--she and her husband are avid readers, and so he just follows suit and picks up books that he is interested in. I asked what Asian American means to them.  Too hard to pin point, they reply.
After the talk, a hand quickly went up: When can we see this play?
I wish for every playwright to find their audience.
Sometimes, playwriting feels like flapping your arms in the dark, aimlessly waving empty hands through the night.
And when you find your audience, suddenly there is a bell in your grasp and you ring and you ring.
Looking through The Beijinger, I notice there are 24 hour bars. I meet Dan, a friend of the Moo, who has lived in Beijing for 8 years and of late makes his living playing jazz guitar for many a cafe or embassy. We meet for Xin Jiang food--that would be lamb skewers and the most awesome sesame bread from China's far west--and I mention to Dan how progressive the nightlife in Beijing is. 'Yeah, there's no last call. I would actually call it regressive.'
My last conversation with Prof. Zhou was on the bus headed towards the subway. I mention how the U.S. and China are both superpowers, one declining and one rising. She kindly sets me straight. ''Superpower' is cold war terminology. I don't think it is in the Chinese nature to be a superpower, or that would have already happened. The Chinese don't want to call attention to themselves. They wish to live simple lives. Perhaps seeing China as a superpower is more a western perspective. The Chinese nature is not to be super. But the Chinese nature is to have face.'

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